Governments face wave of lawsuits for prison injuries amidst rising violence | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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Governments face wave of lawsuits for prison injuries amidst rising violence

Forty-nine-year-old Allen Ogonoski spends time with his mother Sandra in her home in Lockport, just outside Winnipeg, Manitoba Saturday, December 24, 2016. Ogonoski was seriously injured when he was attacked by an inmate in a Surrey prison six years ago.
Image Credit: THE CANADIAN PRESS/John Woods
December 29, 2016 - 4:30 PM

Sandra Ogonoski wakes up many nights, sick with worry about how to care for her 49-year-old son.

Allen Ogonoski was beaten in a British Columbia jail cell in 2011, his head battered so badly that he sometimes forgets what his mother tells him within a few minutes.

"He still sleeps with a blanket wrapped around his head like a shawl, protecting his head," the 70-year-old said in a recent telephone interview from her home in Winnipeg.

"When I'm gone, who is going to look after him?"

Ogonoski, her son and husband Gerald, 73, are among a growing number of inmates and their family members joining lawsuits arguing Canada's federal and provincial facilities fail to meet basic constitutional and common law duties to keep prisoners safe from violence.

Ontario lawyer Kevin Egan represents dozens of families and inmates in federal and provincial prisons who have gone through similar experiences. The veteran litigator began by focusing on the violence he says has plagued the Elgin-Middlesex detention centre in London.

His clients include Jeremy Sippel, who was severely beaten at the facility after being arrested for alleged child abduction in 2013 — a charge later dropped in court after the girl's parents testified to his innocence.

In an interview, Sippel, who is in his late 20s, said the beating occurred within minutes of his arrival, after a guard told him inmates were awaiting him. Almost four years later he has plates in his jaw, and suffers nightmares, depression and memory loss.

"It broke me," said Sippel, who describes himself as "self medicating" and says he fears that if he turns to street drugs he'll end up in a correctional facility again.

Egan launched about 60 lawsuits against the jail for alleged mistreatment, and in August a judge certified his class action against the Ontario correctional service that included allegations the London jail has violated the constitution's guarantees of citizens' rights to "security of the person" and freedom from cruel and unusual punishment.

Egan estimates that up to 9,076 former inmates may be eligible for settlements and, if successful, the Ontario government could be liable for $45 million. Meanwhile, he has about 20 claims at other facilities around the province, including several federal institutions.

The Ontario government has sought leave to appeal the certification of the class action, said Egan.

The province said in an email that "the transformation of Ontario's correctional system is a top priority of the ministry."

"The plan is to transform by addressing the safety of staff and inmates; rehabilitation and re-integration programs; discharge planning; and strengthened mental health supports for inmates."

A spokesman said the government faced about 50 legal claims in 2015, and 70 claims in 2016, although he wasn't able to say how much has been paid out in settlements.

Meanwhile, the Correctional Service Canada website says Ottawa recorded contingent liability allowances for claims and litigations amounting to approximately $8.5 million this year, roughly double the figure listed two years earlier.

The department was also facing about $10 million in lawyers' fees in the last fiscal year. Correctional Service Canada said it was unable to provide comment on the figures or provide its position on lawsuits by deadline.

Ivan Zinger, the federal ombudsman for prisoners, said in an interview that the rise of lawsuits indicates a failure on the part of the federal and provincial governments to learn from past mistakes.

"The ones that are troubling are settled and they always come with a non-disclosure document and they're swept under the carpet. The public doesn't learn how much was paid ... You basically silence people by throwing money at it," he said.

He added the lawsuits are coming amidst a steady rise in violence in prisons across the country.

Correctional Service figures indicate a 93-per-cent increase in federal inmate-on-inmate assaults since 2006, with about 581 assaults committed a year.

In Ontario provincial jails, assaults are up 13 per cent from a decade ago; in Nova Scotia, they are up 46 per cent over last year. In Alberta, the number of annual assaults — ranging from severe beatings to spitting — have doubled since 2007. In British Columbia, they are up by about a third compared to 2011.

Michael Weinrath, a University of Winnipeg criminologist, said he agrees with Zinger that the lawsuits are sometimes used as a way to avoid accountability, but added they are also having a significant impact to provoke change.

"Lawsuits do get (governments') attention, and I think has influenced the structuring of correctional centre activity, reducing inmate contact with each other," he wrote in an email.

The Ogonoski family's statement of claim, yet to be proven in an upcoming civil trial in Vancouver, argues the Surrey Pretrial jail could have foreseen the dangers of double bunking Allen in a cell with a member of the Red Scorpion gang on Aug. 15, 2011. A statement of defence says that guards didn't receive reliable information to indicate Ogonoski's cellmate posed a risk to him.

Sandra Ogonoski said if she succeeds in her action, she's hoping it will mean economic security for her son — and pressure for change in the system.

She said since Allen's beating, she has suffered a stroke, lives with high blood pressure and has to cope with a son who may never recover.

"If the public realized what this will cost providing injured inmates with health care the rest of their lives ... maybe governments will consider revamping our justice system."

Follow Michael Tutton on Twitter @mtuttoncporg

News from © The Canadian Press , 2016
The Canadian Press

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